A little history…Once we lived without it, now we can’t escape it. In the last 100 years it has revolutionised life and now it is everywhere. Plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic everywhere we look. Carpets used to be wool now they are mainly plastic. Packaging used to be a brown paper bag but now there are all sorts of plastic packages. We are all wearing plastic in our clothes. Synthetic materials took over our economy, our lifestyles, and our imaginations because they did their jobs so well.
Bakelite, the first plastic produced entirely from synthetic materials, was invented in 1907. By the beginning of the second world war, plastic was in use for industrial parts like automobile distributor caps and colorful costume jewelry. Initially plastic was valued because it was unbreakable and long lasting. A plastic mug wouldn’t break if dropped. Perspex didn’t shatter like glass. And plastic could be shaped and moulded.
A new idea came with plastic. People used to spend considerable time and effort taking care of things – oiling and waxing, mending and altering, working to prolong the useful lives of the things they owned. The new idea was disposability. Because you could mass produce plastic cheaply and easily we got all sorts of new products: disposable razors, bottle caps, and plastic containers and bottles of all sorts. The war had taught us how to use plastic to make parachutes and now this material was used to make nylon stockings.
By the 1960s, long-lasting plastics had been joined by single use plastic. Shampoo used to come in glass bottles with the possibility of broken glass in the shower, but now plastic bottles offered a cheap alternative to bloodied feet. In the 1980’s paper bags were replaced by cheaper and stronger plastic bags. The transition to a throwaway consumer culture was complex and gradual, but we all got hooked and now we wonder how we could survive without plastic. Our cars are full of plastic. [P1] We go shopping at the supermarket and come home with a heap of plastic. Plastic wrap, plastic trays, plastic bottles, and yes even with a plastic bag ban in place we still have plastic bags. The clothes we buy are full of plastic, the carpets we stand on are invariably plastic, the computer or phone we use is plastic, the paper we read is delivered in plastic, even the pacemaker that keeps us going is plastic.
When plastic bags transformed shopping and packaging in the 1980’s no one gave a thought to what might happen to all those bags. Rubbish was invariably just buried and dear mother earth would take care of them. Slowly a new way of living emerged. We can just throw it away when it’s job is done. Even the old rubbish tin was replaced with a plastic bag for rubbish. It made everyone’s job easier and tidier, although it wasn’t much chop for hot ashes. But another problem was emerging. The small rubbish trucks were replaced with bigger rubbish trucks because there was so many plastic bags full of …. plastic.
So the idea of recycling was born and little triangular arrows with a number inside told us that this plastic could be recycled. Aware that dear old mother earth wasn’t coping well with the amount of rubbish being gifted to her many of us got on board with yellow, green, and red bins. Problems solved. Well no…
In recent years there has been a tsunami of single use plastics. About half the plastic ever produced has been made since the year 2000. Research tells us that the average plastic bag produced does it’s job for about 12 minutes. It could take 450 years to decompose. If Jesus had used a plastic bottle of hair shampoo we could possibly dig it up today. A million plastic bottles are purchased around the world every minute and the number is increasing rapidly thanks to the growth of western consumer culture in China and Asia.
So much plastic it is getting everywhere. Some does get recycled but actually not that much. Lots of people still live in the chuck it in the rubbish and all will be well, or even chuck it out the car window. Sorting plastic or even recycling some say is for greenies.
[P2] Plastic is ending up in all sorts of places, polluting our eco systems. Our oceans are full of plastic. I doubt whether any of you have been to the Cocos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. They are touted as ‘Australia’s last unspoilt paradise.’ Marine scientists visited these islands to do a plastic count along the beaches thinking these remote largely unpopulated island could function a bit like the canary in the coal mine. They found a very sick canary in the form of 238 tonnes of plastic. Most was single use plastic: bottles, plastic cutlery, bags, straws. There was 373,000 toothbrushes. In total 414 million pieces of plastic were retrieved and they reported there was many more times that amount buried in the sand.
[P3] And plastic is making its way into all the creatures in those oceans. We read of literally kilograms of plastic being found in the stomachs of whales who can’t tell the difference between food and plastic. They and other sea creatures think a plastic bag looks like a nice jellyfish. Their digestive systems can and the plastics clog them up and kill them. I think the record currently stands at about 40 kg of plastic found in a young curvier beaked whale near the Philippines. Just under 10% of its body weight was plastic! Can you imagine 10% of your bodyweight inside and a collection of plastic? We see pictures of other creatures being entangled in plastic waste.
[P4] This picture is a close up of salt crystals but see something else… plastic.. its in salt increasingly its in the water you drink. Microplastics, tiny plastic fragments, from all sorts of places including the plastic from the clothes we wear and wash getting literally everywhere including our own bodies. The very latest research tells us we ingest about 50,000 particles of microplastic a year or about the equivalent of a credit card a week, and we have no real idea what it might be doing to us. But every time we wash clothing with plastic in it, and that’s just about everything we wear, we are flushing more micro plastic into our rivers and oceans. The plastic dream has become a plastic nightmare
[P6] Plastic has become the defining material of our time and despite some limited success in recycling it turns out that much of our plastic is used once and literally dumped. Remember those little triangles on plastic containers. The 1&2’s are easier to recycle but 3,5,6,7 are usually not worth it. It’s even worse if people put plastic in for recycling that hasn’t been washed. Ideally we would incinerate the difficult to recycle plastic, carefully filter emissions, and derive energy from it but this costs large amounts of money. What actually happens is that the developed countries like New Zealand is that we simple put it into landfill. About 20% of our landfill in NZ is plastic. WE love burying stuff and forgetting. You simply cant do it in most western countries because it costs way more than here to bury. In reality we lag way behind most developed countries in waste management. We also ship plastic we can’t recycle off to poorer countries for them to deal with. It used to be China, but China stopped taking plastic from the world for recycling back in 2017. Like Australia we started sending plastic to countries like the Philippines and Malaysia. You need very cheap labour to sort the stuff to make money from recycling. But what was happening was that while we paid someone to take our plastic with the idea it would be recycled, unscrupulous operators were simply burning it with horrible effects on local populations not to mention the atmosphere. But now these countries are waking up to what’s going on and soft plastics which are difficult to recycle are currently are going who knows where.
. . And what will save us…I believe we have a fundamental problem. While human beings think they can do what they like and while profit is the key driver of our existance we are doomed. We need to find a new religious way of looking at our world, a way that values the sacredness of life. We need to hear the pain of a whale with 40 kg of plastic in its gut. We need to feel the agony of the littered beach on the Cocos Islands. We need to acknowledge the pain of God that our consumptive way of life is screwing up the world for all future generations.
Polluting the earth, the sea, and every living thing with bits of plastic tells God we want to do it our way. This is sin in its simplest definition. Protecting my comfort and my way of life becomes paramount. A religious outlook says we are accountable to the creator and the sustainer of life. A religious outlook says we are people who long for heaven and earth to become one. We look to transform how things are to how things should be. We look for an earth that exists in harmony and peace with all its abundance and diversity.
There are some Biblical verses that are worth remembering. [P7]
The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it (Psalm 24:1). The Lord, however you want to see the Lord, is bigger than us and all life belongs to this Lord.
Let us make humankind in our image and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, and over the cattle and over all the wild animals and all every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. (Gen 1:26) Dominion does not mean domination but has the meaning of working with God to nurture and care – to be caretakers and stewards.
So how do we live out these verses?
[P7a] Live wondrously…. Before we start laying down laws I think we have to connect with creation more closely. Step outside, take a walk by our local river. Explore, ponder, slow. Listen to the song of a bird. Stop and pause in front of the sight of a spring bulb pushing through the earth. Notice the bees busy on the warmer days. Look for the first flowering of kowhai. We often get so tied up in our little worlds that we fail to notice the handiwork of God all round us. This noticing re-orientates us in our rightful place within creation. It is actually prayer and a reawakening of this prayer is needed.
[P7b] Live with an enquiring mind. Ask questions and educate ourselves. What is actually happening to the plastic we put in the rubbish or the recycling bin? Is there an alternative to buying something in a plastic bottle? Is it possible to purchase meat without buying plastic trays and plastic wrapping? Which plastics are recyclable here in New Zealand? Which plastic products do we want to keep because let’s be clear….plastic can be a wonderful life giving material.
[P7c] Live in community. Talk with others about this issue. Encourage each other with small steps that will help us live a God’s caretakers and guardians. We need to talk about plastic and what we do with it and how we have discovered ways of minimizing our use. That’s why on the pledge I suggest we tell others about our commitment. It’s not to show how good we are but to nurture a build a movement of people who call themselves caretakers and trustees of God’s creation.
[P7d] Dream that as God’s people we may show the world how to be good caretakers.